When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his inspiring “I have a Dream” speech in August, 1963 the civil rights movement for people of color had come of age. I have listened to recordings of the speech too many times to count. It inspires every time. And it is emblazoned on our collective psyche. We all know the story of Rosa Parks, an African-American woman who refused, in 1955, to give up her seat on a public bus and move to the back so that a white person would be able to sit where she had been sitting.
Fewer of us know the story about Ed Roberts. Polio caused the teenage Ed Roberts to be dependent on an iron lung in the early 1950’s. Undaunted, he matriculated at The University of California Berkley and lived in the infirmary during his undergraduate years. He got his Bachelor’s in 1962.
He also got his Master’s degree from UC Berkley. Ed Roberts was determined to be “too disabled” to ever work by the California Department of Vocational Rehabilitation and they would not support him during his education. It must have been sweet for him when, in 1976 California Governor Jerry Brown appointed him to direct that same Department of Vocational Rehabilitation. He is credited with starting the Independent Living movement in the U.S.
Justin Dart was a disability rights activist and he too had polio. After a successful business career running Tupperware in Japan, Justin was appointed by President Reagan as Vice-Chair of The National Council on Disability. His work there led to the creation of The Americans with Disabilities Act, signed into law in 1990 by President George H. W. Bush. Justin said “The ADA is a landmark commandment of fundamental human morality. It is the world’s first declaration of equality for people with disabilities by any nation. It will proclaim to America and to the world that people with disabilities are fully human; that paternalistic, discriminatory, segregationist attitudes are no longer acceptable; and that henceforth people with disabilities must be accorded the same personal respect and the same social and economic opportunities as other people.” Many have called the ADA a civil rights law for people with disabilities.
What do these four people, of different races, from different parts of the country have to do with each other?
All were active in the Civil Rights movement, even if people with disabilities labeled their movement differently, as a disability rights movement. All believed in equality for all people. Not that everything would be the same for each person but that each person would have the opportunity to achieve based on their work, ability and interests and not be held back due to the color or their skin, their physical or intellectual capacities or any other characteristic. Freedom takes many forms and, for people with disabilities it means choosing and controlling the big things in your life, where you live, where and what you do for work, who you love, how you worship … or don’t. It means being to get on the bus, or train or place, or to cross the street or enter public buildings or get a job you are capable of performing.
As the U.S. takes this day to honor Dr. King think too of Ed Roberts and Justin Dart. They too helped the United States become a better place, a land of opportunity for all. In the words of Samuel Adams (1776) “Our contest is not only whether we ourselves shall be free, but whether there shall be left to mankind an asylum on earth for civil and religious liberty”. Thanks to Dr. King, Ms. Parks, Mr. Roberts and Mr. Dart our imperfect union continues to march toward Mr. Adams’ asylum on earth.
Steven Eidelman is the H. Rodney Sharp Professor of Human Services Policy and Leadership at The University of Delaware and the faculty director of The National Leadership Consortium on Developmental Disabilities. He has worked for the last 35 years to help people with disabilities lead full lives in the community.